Politics makes toxic mix with MLB's investment in Venezuela

Kelvim Escobar just finished the season of his life. The right-hander helped the Angels to the American League West Division title and into the postseason. He won a career-high 18 games and posted a 3.40 earned run average during the regular season, finishing among the top eight pitchers in the American League in both statistical categories.

Escobar may have been overlooked by Cy Young voters, but that doesn't diminish what he accomplished.

It's a dream come true, realized a long way from the small town of La Sabana on the outskirts of the Venezuelan port city of La Guaira, where Escobar first picked up a baseball -- or whatever would substitute for one.

"Sometimes, you didn't even have a glove or a bat," Escobar says about growing up with the game in Venezuela. "But it's good because it makes you work harder and appreciate what you've done. Since I was a little kid, that was my dream: to play in the big leagues, to be here and to be able to be here for so long and to make a good living. I feel that I have to help people."

So Escobar, who didn't have the chance to play organized baseball in his youth, funds a school that gives opportunities to hundreds of children in his hometown. He visits the school whenever he can to show the students what a kid from La Sabana can achieve.

Although Escobar's career is blossoming, he is concerned about the future of baseball in his native country.

"I'm kind of worried from the things that I've heard, about what they want to do with the kids in the future," Escobar says. "Like they're not going to let the kids go out of the country until they're 18; or like if a major league team wanted to sign a kid, they'd have to go through the government first and pay some money."

Escobar says he sees the future of Venezuelan baseball in the faces of the children at the school he supports. But when he hears talk about the possibility of restrictions that could impact Major League Baseball's relationship with Venezuela, two very small faces in particular come into view. He sees 6-year-old Kelvim Escobar Jr., and his 7-month-old brother, Kevin.

For their sake, Kelvim Sr. hopes that whatever happens to baseball in his home country is for the best.

Alejandro "Alex" Carrasquel became the first Venezuelan to play in the majors when he made his debut with the Washington Senators in 1939.

By 1989, 50 years later, 54 Venezuelans had seen time in The Show. That same year, the Houston Astros built the nation's first baseball academy, based on the Dominican Republic model. Other clubs followed suit.

Over the past two decades, there has been an explosion of big league talent from Venezuela, and more than 200 Venezuelans have played in the majors including 50 who are currently active. More than 1,000 others are either in the minor leagues or signed with MLB academies in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

"Baseball is the center of our modern culture," says Bernardo Álvarez, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States. "It's part of our life. It expresses the synthesis of modern Venezuela."

More than a pastime, it is an integral part of the nation's identity.

"It defines the people," says Tigers shortstop Carlos Guillén, a native of Maracay, Venezuela, which has produced a number of big league players -- including Yankees outfielder Bobby Abreu and Marlins third baseman Miguel Cabrera.

The list of Venezuelans making an impact in the major leagues is impressive -- from veterans such as Johan Santana and Magglio Ordoñez to players still on the rise such as Cabrera and Felix Hernandez.

With that kind of talent emerging from Venezuela in recent seasons, one would assume that big league clubs would be flocking to the South American nation in search of the next superstar. However, the cultural and political scene in Venezuela is undergoing rapid and radical transformation, and instead of flocking to the country, teams are fleeing over concerns about safety and political uncertainty. They aren't leaving in droves just yet, but the stream has been steady enough to raise a red flag about the future. And that's what has Escobar and others worried.

The number of clubs pulling their player development operations out of Venezuela has been a concern for Major League Baseball. Nineteen teams have participated in the Venezuelan Summer League in the past, but only 11 did so this year.

The Padres, for example, had planned on leaving Venezuela following this season after they built a multimillion-dollar facility in the Dominican, but the current situation accelerated the move. The team moved all its player development operations out of Venezuela following the 2005 campaign, two years earlier than originally anticipated.

"We just figured we might as well do it [then] to avoid some of the hassle of having to deal with some of the legislation that [President Hugo] Chávez passes down there in hiring coaches, worrying about severance pay and just getting in and out of the country," says Juan Lara, San Diego's Latin American operations coordinator.

San Diego is not alone. Baltimore ceased operating its academy following the 2006 season. The Red Sox -- one of the teams the Padres shared an academy with -- left when San Diego did in 2005. Cleveland pulled out in 2004.

There has been speculation, more internal than public so far, that Chávez, a socialist and self-proclaimed revolutionary who took office in 1999, will turn Venezuela into the next Cuba. In other words, some worry that baseball in Venezuela will serve to illustrate (once again) how politics spills over into sport. Cuba is an international power in baseball and, as in Venezuela, the game has long been a part of the nation's cultural landscape. But since Fidel Castro took power, the Cuban government hasn't allowed its players to sign professional contracts

On the other hand, there appears to be just as great a chance that baseball could provide the groundwork for solidifying the now-tenuous relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela.

This, by all indications, is a pivotal moment in the relationship between American baseball and Venezuela.

Melvin Mora has a vision for the baseball academy he wants to build. He has people working on a business model and the logistics of running such an operation and has the funding in place to start construction almost immediately. Like Escobar, the Orioles' third baseman is looking for a way to give back to the country where he grew up.

But at least for the moment, Mora's training facility is stuck in the planning stage.

During the 2006 offseason, Mora approached Jim Duquette, formerly the vice president for baseball operations for the Baltimore Orioles, about his interest in building the academy. The executive had been hearing about the current political situation in Venezuela through the grapevine and cautioned the player about an investment of that magnitude.

Duquette, who resigned from the Orioles at the end of this season, referred Mora to Lou Meléndez. As MLB's vice president for international operations, Meléndez monitors any situation that could affect the way major league clubs do business abroad.

"I told [Mora], 'I'm not discouraging you from investing and trying to attract clubs there,'" Meléndez recalls. "'I'm just telling you that there are movements afoot there that may impact what you want to do.'

"When you see certain industries that are being nationalized, you begin to wonder if they are going to nationalize the baseball industry in Venezuela."

After speaking with Melé, Mora met with Venezuelan Sports Minister Eduardo Álvarez and says he walked away from his conversation with the sports minister with a much better understanding of the situation from the Venezuelan government's perspective. Then, with the help of Mora, Meléndez set up his own meeting with the sports minister in March of this year.

"I tried to bring the two heads [Meléndez and Eduardo Álvarez] together to talk," Mora says. "I didn't want anything in the middle. ... I said, 'Talk to Major League Baseball; don't talk to me. I'm just here because I love Venezuela and I want to see more Venezuelan players in the big leagues and I don't want anything to happen like people are saying in the media.'"

Álvarez, the sports minister, assured Meléndez that nationalization of baseball is not on the agenda in Venezuela.

But Major League Baseball can't help but be aware that a number of international businesses have moved out of the country in recent years. Chávez has begun the process of nationalizing some industries, meaning the government has taken them over. And that fact is accelerating the exodus.

Those moves have won Chávez some acclaim with the Venezuelan electorate -- although it is difficult to gauge their opinion because Chávez has repelled various protests against him. But they have put him at odds with the U.S. government.

"We are not an enemy, but we have our own way of thinking," Bernardo Álvarez, the ambassador, says. "We make our own decisions, and we are not going to accept that anybody will impose on us a way of thinking. We hope that a new government in the U.S. [after the 2008 presidential elections] will help us get to a situation where there will be mutual respect. This is all we are asking."

How those decisions could affect Major League Baseball became a concern to Meléndez. There had been virtually no communication between MLB and the Venezuelan government.

However, other legislation has been proposed that could impact how MLB does business in the country.

Two of those proposals found their way to Meléndez's desk earlier this year. The documents include instituting employee and player protections, mandating that major league clubs pay 10 percent of players' signing bonuses to the government and requiring players to apply for a license to become a professional athlete.

One proposal called for the Venezuelan Baseball Federation (FVB) to oversee all activities pertaining to professional baseball in Venezuela -- including major league operations. To date, the FVB has handled matters relating to the Venezuelan national team, dealing almost solely with amateur players.

"[President of the FVB Edwin] Zerpa wants to get to the whole ambit of professional sports in Venezuela and have control over it, and that's what was really problematic," Álvarez says. "He's never had anything to do with professional baseball."

The organization came under fire this fall when the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) was forced to cancel the World Junior Baseball Championships in Caracas after the Taiwanese team was unable to obtain visas due to political reasons, according to the IBAF. The IBAF appealed to both the FVB and Chávez regarding the issue with no success. This move left the FVB facing sanctions from the sport's international governing body.

According to Meléndez, Major League Baseball is willing to cooperate with the Venezuelan government on a number of issues, including encouraging teams with a minimal presence to consider investing in operations in Venezuela and implementing a version of the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).

However, there are several issues that MLB will not negotiate on.

"I made it clear to him [minister Álvarez] that we don't pay federations money for signing players anywhere in the world, and we don't expect to do so," Meléndez says. "It's certainly not a way to conduct business."

Major League Baseball has no intention of ceding control of any part of its teams' academies or their operations to the Venezuelan government or FVB when "no one from the government has ever been to one of our academies there," Meléndez says.

At the least, the two groups agreed to try to come up with a formal understanding. However, communication between them has been virtually nonexistent since Meléndez met with the sports minister in March, and they have nothing in writing.

"As soon as they reach out to us, whether it's through the office of sports minister Álvarez or someone else, we'll be happy to sit down and meet with them about some of the things we had discussed," Meléndez says. "Until then, we'll just sit back and wait."

For the moment, Major League Baseball is satisfied with the status quo.

"Venezuela, for the most part, has been -- at least as far as MLB is concerned, right now -- quiet," Meléndez says.

MLB is also looking to establish a satellite office in Venezuela in the coming year to have a presence that can represent baseball's interests and serve as a liaison between MLB and the government.

"Nobody wants to see this all go south and have MLB clubs just continue leaving the country," Meléndez says.

That includes Mora. While his talks with Eduardo Álvarez, the sports minister, were productive, Mora has yet to begin construction on his academy.

"I hope it will happen tomorrow, because the more you take a long time, the more they're going to go to Nicaragua or somewhere else," Mora says. "This is what I told my country. Major League Baseball doesn't care. They can go somewhere else. . . . Major League Baseball doesn't want a headache. They just want cooperation. They just want to build more academies, and I'm hopeful that Venezuela will give them the opportunity to build all the academies they want."

He would like to lead the charge.

"It's my dream," Mora says. "I hope my dream comes true. I want to do what I've started."

The relatively recent explosion of Venezuelan talent in the major leagues has created what Bernardo Álvarez calls a "new reality." In the past few years, the Venezuelan government has sought to be more actively involved in matters relating to Major League Baseball. New regulations have been enacted and long-ignored ones that govern how foreign businesses conduct their affairs in Venezuela are now being enforced, regulating things such as severance pay, using local firms for administrative jobs and monetary exchange.

This came as somewhat of a surprise to big league clubs that have been operating in the country under the old way of doing business.

MLB has made an effort to educate its clubs, but some are hesitant to continue running an academy-type complex in Venezuela.

"I know in our case and a lot of other teams, they kind of walked away from that meeting [with MLB] just saying, 'Wow, it's just not worth the hassle to be down there,'" says the Padres' Lara.

And the Padres aren't alone.

"Many of our clubs are obviously concerned about what's happening in the country, and the security situation is obviously very important to our country also," Meléndez says.

Crime is a problem in Venezuela, and some major league organizations have experienced it. Meléndez says several clubs have been the victims of robberies, including the Seattle Mariners, whose facility was held up by armed bandits in 2002. Individual players and scouts have been robbed, or worse. Kidnappings, though not at the epidemic level they are in neighboring Colombia, are on the rise. And Venezuela has one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the world, according to the U.S. State Department.

"I'm not going to lie to you," Escobar says. "It's dangerous. You can't live like that. You have to be careful where you go. Don't go in this part of town. When you're driving, you don't know if they're chasing you to kidnap you, because a lot of people get kidnapped. You worry for your family."

Misinformation, partial information, and whispers regarding the future of Venezuela and the sport that defines it are rampant -- especially in the United States. And very little hard information coming out of Venezuela in the past year has been positive, a fact that both players and the ambassador acknowledge.

"What's happened is people don't know, and people are just talking about what they see in the paper," Mora says. "People talk about what you see in the media."

Some evidence indicates there are changes ahead, although they have yet to take definitive shape.

According to Bernardo Álvarez, some kind of "public policy regarding professional athletes abroad" is coming soon.

The ambassador says the policy is not being designed solely with baseball players in mind. It will apply to all athletes, including professional women's volleyball players and professional soccer players. But a clue to its target group can be found in the name given to the policy in its initial development stages: "El Plan Beisbol."

Melendez says he is not aware of "El Plan Beisbol."

A policy to govern Venezuelan citizens based solely on their profession would be controversial, according to Dr. Francisco R. Rodriguez, former chief economist of Venezuela under Chávez and now assistant professor of Latin American Studies at Wesleyan University.

"There are a lot of people that are leaving [Venezuela] for different reasons," Rodríguez says. "I would bet if the government starts putting constraints on professional sports, then that's likely to become even more the case [for professional athletes]."

The policy will focus on "issues of security, social participation, social security for players in Venezuela and many, many [other] aspects," according to the embassy.

The real purpose, ambassador Álvarez says, is for the protection of players and for the government to assist the players with the philanthropic efforts in which they already participate. For example, Escobar funds the school for 400 children in his hometown of La Sabana. Mora makes charitable efforts such as offering baseball clinics and distributing equipment. Next on his list is the academy he wants to build to help replace those that have left.

Other Venezuelan major leaguers, including Guillén, Ordoñez and Santana, are trying to help their homeland, too.

But of course, money -- as always -- is a factor.

"[The policy] even goes into to the issues of taxation, because there are important issues there," Bernardo Álvarez says. "But in the conversations we have had with [the players], this economic side is not the priority of these talks."

The government has solicited input from professional baseball players on this proposed new policy.

According to the ambassador, the response from players who have been approached by the embassy so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

"I don't know much about politics, but whatever happens, they say it's going to be for the best," Escobar says with a shrug.

Ironically, the man at the center of all this controversy might never have become the president of Venezuela if not for baseball.

Raised in the rural village of Sabaneta, Hugo Chávez dreamed of playing for the San Francisco Giants. Chávez believed he would never be discovered if he stayed in his hometown, so, at 17, he enrolled in the Venezuelan Academy of Military Sciences in Caracas, hoping his baseball abilities might catch a scout's attention.

A professional playing career never materialized, but while he was in the Venezuelan capital he found his life's calling. Chávez was introduced to the leftist ideas that became the foundation for the country's recent social revolution.

He has maintained his interest in the game, though, and he shares his passion for it with Fidel Castro. On Nov. 18, 1999, Chávez pitched a nine-inning game against a team of Cuban old-timers managed by Castro. A contest between longtime friends, the game was heralded afterward as strengthening the bonds between Cuba and Venezuela.

Eight years later, those bonds have a lot of people concerned.

"There's really no other way to explain his admiration of the Cuban model than to think that it's a good example," says Rodríguez. "I wouldn't say I'm 100 percent sure Venezuela is going in that direction, but if you read Chávez's speeches and his interviews and what he says . . . they're very old, traditional socialist concepts.

"When he says we're going to build 21st-century socialism, is he thinking about some type of social democracy or is he really thinking about the classical socialism similar to communism? It's unclear. But to the extent that I can hazard a guess, I do think that his idea is that of a much more radical transformation -- something that's a lot closer to Cuba or a lot closer to the pre-1990s Soviet Union."

Ambassador Álvarez laughs off such predictions, although he makes no apologies for the tensions between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments.

"All these sort of Cold War, Russian films, Hollywood thing, don't believe that," he says. "It just doesn't make sense."

However, months before he heard about "El Plan Beisbol," Rodríguez correctly speculated that the Venezuelan government could enact a policy to specifically govern athletes.

"For example, if you were thinking of something intermediate like a decree, you could say we consider these sectors to be somehow essential or vital and . . . put baseball players under that," Rodríguez said in March.

That decree, he suggested, could cover anything from taxation to restricting emigration.

"[The government] has the power to do that and the capacity." Rodríguez said then. "I think that some people in government, maybe even Chavez himself, have the willingness or would like to do it. That seems to me like a reasonable scenario."

By now, it appears to be more than a reasonable scenario. If everything progresses as the ambassador believes it will, such legislation might soon be a reality.

But whether Venezuela will follow the Cuban model is far from a certainty, especially to the Tigers' Guillén.

"We're never going to be like Cuba," Guillén says. "We're never going to be like Cuba because we are bigger than Cuba. We've got oil. People say that because we don't have a good relationship with [U.S. President] George Bush, that's the thing. Everybody talks about Chávez; but you've got to look at yourself before you talk about somebody else. Everybody's got a different mind, and nobody has to think the way the United States thinks."

So far, the Venezuelan government has made no specific move that allows its political differences with the United States to spill over into baseball.

But guarantees are hard to come by in Venezuela these days.

In 2000, Virginia-based AES Corp., one of the world's largest power companies, felt secure about its Venezuelan investments after speaking with high-ranking Venezuelan officials, including Chávez;. That changed last spring when Chavez announced his plans to nationalize the energy sector. The company had little option but to sell its Venezuelan stake. The purchase price was less than half of the $1.7 billion it had originally invested.

"Chavez is extremely unpredictable," Rodríguez says. "When political regimes are somewhat more balanced, political scientists can make predictions based on their knowledge of how the system works ... Now when you get to a case like Venezuela, where power is so concentrated in one person's hands, and particularly when it's a person who's actually proved to be rather unpredictable in the past, then it becomes much harder. It's almost a psychological exercise in what is Chávez; thinking."

Even the assurances MLB receives from the Venezuelan government could have little bearing if teams do not actually believe their investment in Venezuela is a stable one, and if security concerns continue to escalate.

But the situation hasn't reached crisis level yet. And ambassador Álvarez, for one, believes there is a real possibility that baseball could provide the common ground to help mend the political fences.

"I'll tell you the numbers," Bernardo Álvarez says. "Tensions have been growing politically between the U.S. and Venezuela, and the number of [Venezuelan] players [in the major leagues] has been growing . . . I think that for the future, with this idea of mutual respect on the political front, baseball should and could play a very important role in integrating Venezuelan and U.S. society."

That might even have occurred to Chávez as well. On his radio program in April, Venezuela's president joked, "If George Bush and I survive all of this, and we are old men, it would be good to play a game of dominos, [or] street baseball."

Maria Burns Ortiz is a freelance writer and regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.